Emily Somner leans back in the big brown leather couch and sighs. She got up at 7 am this morning so she could spend half an hour at her favorite Starbucks before she has to take the metro downtown at 8.30. She takes a long sip of her vanilla chai latte before she puts down the white paper cup with the brown paper sleeve on the small round wooden table. Only then she takes of her jacket.
“I just have to come here every morning before I go to work,” says Somner, 32, a paralegal at a local law firm. “I don’t care if there’s a line or if it’s really crowded, I need a decent cup of coffee before I can function.”
Like Somner, more than 60 % of adult Americans drink coffee every day, according to the National Coffee Association (NCT). If every one of them had just one single cup, this would amount to more than 150 million cups per day and about 55 billion per year. While a certain amount of them is surely consumed at home, a large portion is sold on the go in disposable coffee cups. One single disposable cup might seem like a small item, but it is part of a bigger problem. Reports issued by the the Environment Action Association (EAA) estimate that disposable containers make up 18 % of America’s garbage, with beverage cups made of virgin paper and Styrofoam making up a big chunk of this number. In Styrofoam cups alone, 25 billion are thrown away every year in
America. Starbucks, which prides itself in being the biggest chain of coffee shops worldwide, hands out 4 billion disposable cups every day.
But what happens to all those cups once the last sip of coffee is drunk?
“To be honest I never really thought about this,” states Somner while inspecting her cup from all sides. “I just assumed, since they are made of paper, they would be recycled like any other paper.” Sadly it is not as simple as that. Many cups that appear to be made of only paper, contain resin to prevent the liquid from seeping and can therefore not be recycled at all. Others might be labeled as “recyclable” but will end up in a landfill anyway.
“No company in China or the United States that produces any container can tell you whether or not this container will be recyclable in your community,” explains Russell Klein, Environmental Education Program Coordinator at the District of Columbia Department of Public Works. “It all depends on the specific law, the available facilities and the system that is in place.” In Washington this means that regular types of paper such as office paper, old newspapers and cardboard, if discarded in the right bin, will be send to a special facility. There the pulp can be recovered and new paper products will be produced. But not all types of paper are the same and the story for coffee cups is different than the one for office paper. Klein says: “There are many different kinds of paper. With food related paper it gets very tricky. We don’t want the type of paper with a lot contamination like cheese and grease. By and large that means no pizza cartons, no food containers and no coffee cups.”
For coffee cups to be recycled, they would have to be collected separately. Then the paper fibers or polystyrene, which Styrofoam is made from, would have to be extracted. This elaborate process is simply not economical
ly profitable. Besides the question if there would be enough quantity of cups, there is also uncertainty about quality. Since the cups used to contain hot liquids, the fibers might be too damaged to be recovered at all.
“Even if we wanted to recycle, we couldn’t,” says Rebecca Thomson*, 20 year old student at American University that works part time at a local Starbucks. “Even if we put up a bin for the cups in the front, we would still have to take them to the back and throw them out with the regular trash.”
Recycling seems to be a relatively new trend in the United States but it actually dates back long before the first disposable coffee cup was produced. The recycled paper manufacturing process was introduced in 1690 when the Rittenhouse Mill near Philadelphia started making paper from fiber derived from recycled cotton and linen rags. 120 years later, in 1801, Matthias Koops of Westminster, England was granted a patent for recycling paper back to paper.
The culture of what marketing specialists call ease and convenience that we see today, however, developed only during the last century. On August 1st, 1955 “Life” magazine ran a two page article titled “Throwaway Living”, celebrating how “Disposable products cut down on household chores.” The article was accompanied by a picture of three children happily tossing numerous different disposable containers in the air.
“The objects flying through the air in this picture would take [the housewife] 40 hours to clean.” the article explains.
Six decades later, Americans are more considerate of pollution and the preservation of the environment and might not glorify this lifestyle anymore, but recycling efforts are far from keeping up with the “Throwaway Life”. Yet some of the big players have understood the vital role they play. Dunkin’ Donuts is working on a new design for their
Styrofoam cups that will reduce the amount of polystyrene in every single cup.
Their competitor Starbucks has been hosting an annual “Cup Summit” since 2009, inviting experts from all over the country to work on reducing the waste caused by their cups. Most notably the company started an innovative pilot project in Chicago in 2011. There costumers can dispose of their cups in special bins in front 89 Starbucks stores. These cups will be picked up and send to a paper mill where the pulp will be recycled into Starbucks napkins. Installing a similar system in every major city, however, would be very cost- and time consuming. That is why Starbucks is also relying on their costumers’ assistance. Coffee drinkers that bring in their personal cup will receive a discount. This practice has been adopted by other coffee shops as well and seems to be effective to some extent. “Most of the people who come in and bring their own cup, do it for the discount”, Thomson says.
Klein believes that reducing is the most important step in solving the problem: “It’s always best to go with the hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle. Recycling being the very last step. First of all try to use less paper cups by bringing your own reusable one to the store.”
But people that do really bring their own reusable cups are still far too few. Only 1.8 % of Starbucks coffees were sold in reusable cups last year, forcing the company to reduce their ambitious goal of 25 % in 2015 to 5% by the same year. To achieve at least this number Starbucks in January introduced a reusable plastic cup for a price as low as $ 1. A regular Starbucks thermos “tumbler” starts at $ 9.99. Whether the low price is really all it takes to get costumers to change their behavior is desirable but questionable.
“On the individual level, once behavior has become a habit it is very hard to change. First you have to raise awareness and then it’s a long way from short time action to a permanent change,” says Klein.
In Emily Somner’s Starbucks the $ 1 cups are presented in a basket by the cash counter. Other than that there is no encouragement to purchase one and the 10 cent discount can easily be overlooked in the fine print of the menu board. Once her attention was directed to them, it took Somner less than a minute to get her own. “I guess there is not much to it, to just get one of those reusable cups. I just never new that these paper cups where such a big problem! They should come with a warning like cigarette packets!”
*name was changed by editors, because the student preferred to remain anonymous